LAWRENCE — Justice Sonia Sotomayor twice cited research by University of Kansas professors on the effects of police stops on minorities in her dissent June 20 to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on racial profiling and searches.
In a 5-3 decision in Utah v. Strieff, a majority of justices ruled that evidence uncovered during an unlawful police stop could still be used against someone in court. In this case, Edward Strieff, the defendant, had an outstanding warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket, and the majority ruled that this justified an officer’s search of him for illegal drugs.
Sotomayor argued that because the officer did not have "reasonable suspicion" to stop Strieff in the first place, the officer’s subsequent discovery that Strieff had a warrant for his arrest could not be used as a legal justification for searching him.
“This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” she wrote. “It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights.”
Unlawful police stops, she said, “have severe consequences” for many people. Citing "Pulled Over," a recent award-winning book by KU professors Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel, she observed that “the indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.” The harm caused by invasive police stops extends to intrusive searches and handcuffing, often in full view of the public. She noted, "It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”
In their research for the book, the KU scholars found that police disproportionately stop black drivers to check for possible criminal activity, even when there is no evidence of it. Officers use minor traffic violations, like driving two miles over the speed limit, as a pretext for making these stops. The practice has eroded African-Americans’ trust in the police and negatively affected how minorities participate in civic life, according to the study, which was based on interviews with 2,329 drivers in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
In her opinion, Sotomayor also mentioned the book's findings on how police are trained to use discovery of an outstanding warrant to give officers cause for an immediate arrest and an excuse to search a suspect.
"We are deeply honored that Justice Sotomayor drew on our research in her eloquent condemnation of investigatory police stops," Epp said. "She is exactly right that invasive police stops cause deep harms to the many innocent people who are stopped in this way. Our research reveals that these harms include avoiding driving in some areas and changing the clothes you wear for fear of how the police may treat you and being unwilling to call the police when you need help. These stops dangerously erode people’s trust in the police."
Epp is a distinguished professor in the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration and by courtesy in African and African-American Studies. Maynard-Moody is a professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration and director of the KU Institute for Policy and Social Research. Haider-Markel is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science.
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